New Program Fact-Checks Politicians as They Speak
If only this could work in everyday life, too.
The Washington Post is developing and testing a piece of software that fact-checks, in near-real time, what people say in videos and on TV. In a demonstration that went live Jan. 28, the newspaper applied its "Truth Teller" software to several videos, including one of a speech that House Speaker John Boehner made a few days after President Barack Obama's reelection in November 2012.
When Boehner says in the video, "According to Ernst and Young, raising the top [tax] rates would destroy nearly 700,000 jobs in our country," a note pops up beside his head. "False," the note reads in large red letters. The note also repeats the bulk of Boehner's sentence — though the restatement is not exact — and offers a button that says "View Source."
One click takes viewers to a Washington Post story about the math behind the 700,000 jobs figure, including the flaws in the computer model used to calculate job losses.
The Truth Teller program automatically listens to speech, recognizes statements on topics it knows about and compares those statements with its own database. Right now, public users can only see it at work on pre-loaded videos at truthteller.washingtonpost.com. If it's later made into a public app, it could help people sort through the "tidal wave" of news and opinion available online, Knight Foundation official Michael Maness told the Poynter Institute in August 2012. The Knight Foundation, which regularly funds projects in journalism and the arts, gave the Truth Teller team $50,000 to make this prototype.
In the future, a program like Truth Teller could fact-check advertising, too, Maness said.
The software works through a series of translations. It uses Microsoft software to recognize what's said in the audio track and turns that into a text transcript. (In Washington Post's online demonstration, the software makes automatically created text transcripts available below each demo video. The transcripts are flawed, but the general ideas come through.) [SEE ALSO: Software Converts Your Speech into Chinese]
The computer program then uses pattern recognition to match the text in the transcript to the text in its database.
Truth Teller works in real time for demonstration videos the Washington Post has uploaded, meaning that although the demo videos are old, the program acts as if they were new every time viewers play them, searching and fetching facts as the video plays.
One major limit to Truth Teller's abilities is that it only "knows" what's in its database. In the six demonstration videos the Washington Post published, the software appears to draw its knowledge from FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com and the Washington Post itself. Right now, the software's known facts mostly pertain to tax reform in the United States.
"We focused on the coming debate over tax reform, both because of its timing and importance," Cory Haik, the Washington Post's executive producer of digital news, wrote in a blog post for the Knight Foundation. "The tax debate will play out over several months and naturally lends itself to deceit and deception, even more so than many policy discussions."
Expanding Truth Teller to other topics would require adding more pages of documents to the program's database. As that storehouse grows, the program will surely slow down, requiring re-engineering to meet its goal of fact-checking in real time.
"It needs more technical work and we need more facts [for its database], but it works and we’ll keep working on it," Haik wrote.
The Truth Teller team plans to tweak the program to recognize paraphrasing and negative connotations in speech, Haik said. Ultimately, the development team thinks Truth Teller will work for streaming video and, yes, even for real life.
"Can this work if someone is holding up a phone to record a politician in the middle of a parking lot in Iowa? Yes, we believe it can," Haik said.